Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Angry Right Wing Voter: Have We Gone Too Far? 2/2

by Nomad
In the previous post, we examined the problem of rage, hate and anger that seems to have become an integral part of American politics these days. The questions I want to look at in this post deals with the sources for this anger. Apart from the general state of the economy, where does all this bitterness come from? Who is inciting this overreaction? How exactly do politicians benefit from the angry mob? 

Well Springs of Anger
One of the problems with having a two-party system is the strong possibility of polarization; when the middle ground dissolves and the only voices you hear are the most strident and angry. 
This puts the mainstream media- which has long surrendered its impartiality to its commercial demands- in something of a quandary. A sensible discussion is next to impossible.

Present the unadulterated truth, and one side is insulted and claims bias. The next best thing is to try to give equal time to both sides. But in the past, this too has made neither side particularly happy. 

The problem lies when the media is used not to inform but to inflame, For example, radio host Rush Limbaugh is just one of many radio hosts whose primary mission seems to be stirring up anger. Few can claim Limbaugh actually encourages intelligent debate on his shows. 

Limbaugh or Michael Savage or any of the others bring no special expertise to the discussion. Their only real talent to be as loud, outrageous and offensive as possible and to feel no regret or shame.
Rush Limbaugh Nomadic Politics
Rush Limbaugh
And we are speaking about a unique kind of media. The content of Internet forums or radio call-in shows, is produced by the audience. Most of the people whose views would be met with ridicule, disapproval or at least reasoned discussion, can be given a kind of legitimacy that they can find no other place. On a Michael Savage show, even the hysterical “wingnut” can be given his moment in the spotlight. This kind of support is rewarded with loyalty and ratings. Ratings mean advertising dollars. 

As one source on sociology explains:
Anger makes for good ratings. If fiction serves to stoke anger better than fact, then these media figures have a vested interest in fiction. Anger and fiction, however, generally work against the interest of both the public and of sociologists. ... the gridlock which hampers government’s ability to effect any meaningful social change threatens public interests, while sociology is precluded from informing public debate so long as that debate is not taking place.
One might argue that call-in radio shows, comment sections at partisan blogs, or online forums, at least, allow this resentment to harmlessly vent itself.

This line of thinking was well-expressed by columnist Bill Thompson from the Fort Worth Star Telegram who wrote back in 1995:
We keep hearing all this furor about "hate radio" and the overriding message seems to be that statements made on the airwaves may incite hatred or even violence against individuals organizations and institutions. Nonsense.
If indeed there is such a thing as "hate radio" then it exists because people who hate want to listen to other people who hate."
That much is no doubt true- haters appreciate hate- but Thompson seemed to 
have missed the point: this isn't a question of market forces or consumer tastes. He concludes with:
A medium which gives frustrated citizens a socially acceptable outlet to vent their frustration is thoroughly consistent with our nations' cherished tradition of free speech. Such an outlet is far more likely to prevent violence than to cause it.
That would depend on how the message is presented. If the host endorses the message of violence or frustration, then Thompson's point is completely inaccurate.
Under the constitutional protections of freedom of speech, the levels of hate have continued unabated. However, contrary to what many people think, freedom of speech has never been unlimited. Slander and libel laws, for example, limit free speech. Inciting people to violence is another limit that the law places on free speech. Obscene phone calls are also a form of speech which is not protected by the Constitution.

Hate speech- that is, any communication that vilifies a person or a group on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristics- is not officially regulated in the US. But it is legally prohibited in many developed countries around the world. 

Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom and many other nations all have much more concise definitions and prohibitions on hate speech. (In each case, the definition of what constitutes hate speech varies somewhat. However, in all of the countries above, hate radio- as we find in the US - would not be accepted.) 
Nations that respect diversity and civil rights as much as their freedom of expression have learned to find a balance. It is a mark of a civilized society that one group of citizens should not live in fear or under repression by another. 
Perhaps, one reason why Europe leads in the limiting of hate speech is simply because the history of the previous century has shown exactly where unregulated hate speech can drive a nation.

In any case, going back to the newspaper article's claim: is it true that allowing people to regularly release their bile is a good thing? 

Contrary to what many people believe, anger management experts say no.
The benefits of “Just letting it all out” or “getting that anger out of your system” is, in fact, a myth. 

Psychologist who counsel parents on anger management point out the danger with this approach:
The truth is that it does work in the short-term. Letting your anger out does release built up tension and frustration. Unfortunately, it won't solve problems per se. Letting out anger can also be addictive to some degree... Many parents like the feeling that anger gives them. They may feel more powerful, in control, or simply alive. Research shows that this kind of behavior can have a physiological rush or high association with it. Of course, it does not consider the interpersonal or physical costs of such behavior...
The reality behind the myth of letting anger out is that it doesn't go away permanently. Anger comes back instead of going away. And it comes back in greater force now that the parent feels guilty about their last public display of anger and their coping skills have failed. Failure and frustration is a deadly combination that leads to even more anger.
And this applies not only to a parent-child relationship but to society as a whole. (I would also add that over time, that initial guilt that one felt about the release of anger fades while the anger itself returns.)
When you add the echo chamber effect and the degree of anger exponentially expands. Anybody who has sat in a waiting room knows how quickly bitterness grows when people share their complaints without any prospect of a solution.

From the Pulpit
Another surprising source of anger has become the religious groups who dabble in politics. Right Wing Christian radicals have, since the time of Reagan, played their own part in stirring up intolerance. 

There are countless examples of religious organizations sowing the seeds of discontent.
Take Pastor Steven L. Anderson from the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Phoenix. In his sermon from August 18 2009, entitled “Why I hate Obama” he proclaims:
“I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don't like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don't like his policies. No, I hate him… I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.” 
Shocking and sinister words from a man of God. 
As if that wasn't bad enough, Anderson declared in an interview that, although he wouldn't "encourage" it, all gays should be executed. The radio interviewer explained
Anderson actually told me that, though he wouldn't encourage it, he would not condemn any person who killed President Obama or call that person a murderer. He does not believe that the man who allegedly killed Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions, a murderer. And he said he would not call someone who shot a group of gays and lesbians with a machine gun a murderer.
Apparently the sixth commandment, in Anderson's mind, does not apply in this case. His process of dehumanization of his enemies is complete. 
Isn't the Christian faith all about loving one's enemies? Forgiveness and compassion. In the New testament- which allegedly is the cornerstone of the teachings for Christians- we find this passage in Titus 3:3-8
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. 
Even for a lay person like myself, the passage seem clear enough. However,  Pastor Anderson, as a preacher of hate, is not by any means alone.

One of the more infamous is the familiar Westboro Baptist Church which attempts to provoke reaction by showing up at funerals- especially at military servicemen, with signs proclaiming their detestation of homosexuality. (Their reasoning-such as it may be called reasoning- is that God is punishing America for its acceptance of "perversion" through the deaths of its military personnel.)

What is more, these holy propagandists are not content to preach to only their limited religious community. They also target and indoctrinate the youth as well outside the church.  
The Southern Poverty Law Center investigated Bradlee Dean‘s Christian youth ministry You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, for two year before classifying it as a hate group. The ministry toured churches and schools in Iowa and other states in the Midwest, presenting its anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-abortion messages in graphic detail — including showing students photos of dead fetuses. (Many students were reportedly traumatized and some parents called to complain about the presentation.)
Aging hard rocker, Dean is head of the fittingly named Christian metal rock group “Junkyard Prophet,” He reportedly has close ties with the former Republican candidate, Michele Bachmann. 
Dean also created a furor on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives in May of 2011 when he led the opening prayer. He used that opportunity to launch an attack on the president with the familiar poppycock of Obama's Muslim faith. Many members of the House were startled by Dean's presumption. They shouldn't have been. It's not as though any of the preachers feel the need to hide their opinions.
Prior to the prayer, Dean had made somewhat surprising statements in praise of Islam:
 “Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America,” he said on his radio show, The Sons of Liberty “It shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination.” 
On the surface, one might think that preaching hate, especially executing people willy-nilly, would turn off many of the congregation. 
Things are much further along than that.
Recently one pastor in North Carolina suggested that gay and lesbians should be rounded up and impounded behind prison walls and left to die.  He revealed what thought he spend his idle hours on when he proclaimed his own final solution for gays and lesbians to his church:
“I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers but I couldn’t get it pass the Congress – build a great big large fence, 50 or a hundred mile long. Put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. And have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. “And you know what? In a few years they will die out.
His congregation gave him a standing ovation. 
Gays and lesbians are to the radical religious preachers what Jews were to the Nazis.

But how can supposedly devout members of a Church that supposedly preaches tolerance react in such a way? 

To answer this, we again must return to a different psychology study. In the last post, I cited a study that suggested that an angry mind is less analytic, more subject to knee-jerk reactions, more susceptible to stereotypes and prejudices. 

In another study, published in recent edition of the journal Science sheds some light on how the religious mind is similar to the angry mind.
Scientists have revealed one of the reasons why some folks are less religious than others: They think more analytically, rather than going with their gut. And thinking analytically can cause religious belief to wane — for skeptics and true believers alike.
Looking at the conclusions from the opposite angle, the studies implies that 
people who are religious tend to think less analytically and rely more on short-cuts.
According to one theory of human thinking, the brain processes information using two systems. The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses — a gut instinct, if you will — to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs deliberative analysis, which uses reason to arrive at a conclusion.
Both systems are useful and can run in parallel, the theory goes. But when called upon, analytic thinking can override intuition.
According to Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing and not analytical deliberation.
In other words, the  shortcut thinking that rules our thinking when we are angry is very similar to the shortcut thinking of the more religious types. 

If the study is anything to go by, then, for people who wish to stir up anger and resentment, it would seem that the best place to start would be at church. (And if anybody attempts to call attention to their incitements, they call it "an attack on the Church.")

When one includes the other factors, such as the desire for community, the authority of the leader of the church, the regular routine of worship, the constant reinforcement and the authority of 2000 years of teaching and you have a fairly powerful means of disseminating whatever message you wish. A message of love and understanding or a message of hate and intolerance. 

The Dangerous Advantage of Rabble Rousing
Sarah Palin
If stirring up animosity among the masses is so dangerous, why haven’t  leaders come out and attempted to quell this hazardous kind of overreaction, or even attempted in some way to pacify their supporters. The answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that there are certain advantages.

This was something that Sarah Palin back in 2008 discovered. As McCain’s running mate, Palin illustrated the one clear advantage of capitalizing on the anger of voters. As the campaign progressed, Palin was, with her use of imagery and her phrases, repeatedly crossing a line that even McCain found unnerving. 
During the campaign in an event at Clearwater Florida, Palin tried to link Obama with 1960s Weather Underground. One source tells us what happened 
One of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers," she said. ("Boooo!" said the crowd.) "And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,' " she continued.
("Boooo!" the crowd repeated.)
"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.
The tone of the McCain’s campaign appalled even some of the more sane members of his own party.
Frank Schaeffer, a former McCain staffer from his 2000 run, thinks McCain knows exactly what he's doing with all his coded talk about race and says
Stop! Think! Your rallies are beginning to look, sound, feel and smell like lynch mobs. John McCain, you're walking a perilous line. If you do not stand up for all that is good in America and declare that Senator Obama is a patriot, fit for office, and denounce your hate-filled supporters when they scream out "Terrorist" or "Kill him," history will hold you responsible for all that follows. (emphasis mine)
Eventually, in 2010, when a Congressman and a group of her supporters were gunned down by some crazed lunatic, Palin even then could not recognize the part she might have played. She made the politically fatal step of excusing herself of all responsibility and pointed the finger at the news media.

What could be the reason for using this risky tactic? 
Simply put, for Palin, it allowed her to escape to difficult part of politicking- that is, coming up with viable, intelligent (or even plausible) alternative solutions. (Sarah Palin probably see it in more practical terms: The roars and howls from the audience the time is devoted to actual speaking.)

Palin was clearly out of her depth and was incapable of discussing serious issues. Her media interviews- despite the attempts to coach her- were dismal and laughable. During the only debate, she insisted on answering- not the questions asked- but the questions she had answers for. Winking, blowing kisses, the reliance of a folksy mannerism, the family parade, the desperate clinging to memorable sound bite lines (Say it ain't so, Joe.) all demonstrated she was unqualified to be in any higher office.  
Her dependence on and her encouragement of the bad temper of the crowd was only further proof of her inadequacy. For Palin, it was far easier to appeal their outrage, instead of appealing to their reason.

By playing on the psychology of the anger, politicians of this low standard are in effect freed from any hard questions, freed from the complications of details. They are free to make extraordinary claims. Trump can flirt with the repeatedly discredited notion that Barack Obama was born in Kenya instead discussing his own pathetic record of achievement and whether voters should seriously consider him as a candidate. (Romney, according to the latest news, has embraced this Trump birther silliness as well.)
By turning the supporters into a snarling irrational mob, the far right wing politician does not have to take any responsibility for the messy situation the nation is in. They don’t have to propose any better plan than Obama has tried. They simply have to use a certain incendiary type of rhetoric, filled with barely-encoded messages. (For example, Romney accused Obama of character assassination- not of attacking his character but he decided to use the more loaded word, assassination. How that might sound to an armed lunatic we can only imagine.)

Washington’s Warning
Except for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, there is no one document handed down from our founding fathers that speaks as much to our own times than George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation. 
In 1796, Washington had spent 45 years in the service of his country and, concerned about the accusation of becoming a ruler over (as opposed to a servant of the) people had decided to step out of the public world. 
Among the issues he mentioned in his last public speech, President Washington extolled the benefits of a federal government. He called upon the people to appreciate that only through unity can the United States stand against divisive forces, both external and internal. 
Additionally he warned against a burdensome military, advising the people to..
"...avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty."
He advocated frugality when it came to public debt, but also the accumulation of revenue through fair taxation
One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible...avoiding likewise the accumulation of is essential that you...bear in mind, that towards the payments of debts there must be Revenue, that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not...inconvenient and unpleasant..."
Of the points Washington touched upon in his last address to the new nation, none, perhaps is more relevant to today than his comments on political parties.
In his time, there was a heated feud between the newly born Republican party and the his own Federalist party. Washington foresaw the potential for disaster and warned of the inherent dangers of a polarized party system which, he noted:
...agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindle the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion...

There is an opinion, that parties, in free countries, are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This, within certain limits is probably true; and in governments if a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not favor upon the spirit of the party. But in those of popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose.
Simply put, a little party spirit goes a long way. Finally Washington added this powerful warning to the newly liberated people:
And there being constant danger of excess, the effort out to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume. 
We are now seeing what happens when the sense of unity becomes sidelined to the battle for ideological supremacy. When party spirit runs amok, and when animosities between groups are encouraged. 
So far we have been fortunate enough to avoid the conflagration that Washington cautioned the nation against but it is foolish to suppose that our national good fortune can hold forever.